Stories in Virginia

Fire, Management and Monitoring

Using fire in the Allegheny Highlands to maintain biological diversity in an ecosystem critical to climate change migration.

A man in a blue shirt walks down a forest trail. In the foreground a metal sign affixed to a tree announces that this is a prescribed fire area, detailing that the area was intentionally burned.
Good Fire Allegheny Highlands Program Director Blair Smyth walks the Bear Loop Trail at Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, Virginia. © Daniel White/TNC

Key Takeaways

  • Allegheny Highlands is a critical natural highway for species to move as they adapt to climate change.
  • TNC uses controlled burns to mimic natural fires that shaped the landscape over 10,000 years, creating a diverse ecosystem of open woodlands, young forest and shady old-growth.
  • Our efforts are enhanced by fire training exchanges (TREX) and partnerships with federal, state and private land managers.

The forests of the Allegheny Highlands stretch for miles in every direction. But they also stretch back in time over 10,000 years. Throughout these millennia, fire was an ever-present force on the landscape, helping to create one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America.

Today, fire is still an essential tool to maintain biological diversity and to reduce the size and severity of wildfires. The Nature Conservancy and our partners at the U.S. Forest Service use controlled burns on Warm Springs Mountain Preserve and throughout the George Washington National Forest to achieve ecological and human safety goals.

Drone view looking out over rolling mountain ridges and valleys. The mountain sides are thickly forested. Sunlight dapples over the trees. Small clearings and farms are visible in the distance.
Warm Springs Mountain Drone's eye view looking east from Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, 300 feet above the Dan Ingalls Overlook parking lot. Bath County, VA. © Doug Rogers

How Fire Shapes a Forest

Scientists have studied tree fire scars, soil charcoal and wilderness pond sediment to piece together the story of how the Appalachian forest developed over the last 10,000 years. Comparing patterns among thousands of fire-scarred trees, researchers have found that fires occurred periodically, often every 3-9 years, dating back to the mid-1600s. Carbon dating of soil charcoal and pond sediment has allowed researchers to look back even further, confirming regular fire events during the last 10,000 years.

Cross section of a tree showing growth rings and fire scars. Pencil notations and captions added onto the photo mark off specific years in the tree's life.
Reading the Rings Tree rings and fire scars reveal a forest's history. © Marek Smith / TNC

These historical fires were likely caused by a mixture of lightning strikes and intentional burns by Native Americans. Fires cleared out the forest floor, which increased plant diversity, improved browse for wildlife and made traveling easier. Early European settlers continued to use fire as a tool to shape their surroundings.

10,000 years of fire delivered a diverse ecosystem, filled with young, middle and old-growth forests. It contained open, fire-maintained woodlands and glades, thick with grasses, wildflowers and scattered trees. It also contained shady, closed-canopy forests, complete with their own suite of species. But overall, it was this mixture of open woodlands, young forest, and shady old-growth that made the Appalachians such a desirable home for so many plants and animals.

An interpretive sign on Warm Springs Mountain's Bear Loop Trail. The sign overlooks a mountain valley and describes the history of active fire suppression by forest services in the early 20th century.
Fire Suppression The turn of the 20th century saw a shift in attitudes towards natural fire and a program of active fire suppression. © Daniel White / TNC

A Forest Without Fire

Just as 10,000 years of regular fire shaped the Appalachian forest, so has the last 100 years of fire suppression. The era of massive overexploitation in the Appalachians (1880s-1910s) included frequent, unnaturally intense wildfires, often set along new railroad systems that snaked between the mountains. Depleted resources and damaging fires were conflated and fire suppression became the new paradigm. 

After the turn of the 20th century, state and federal agencies were assigned to aggressively fight wildfires. Smokey Bear was launched as one of the most successful environmental campaigns in history. This success had unforeseen and lasting consequences

Forest fire suppression, combined with past exploitative land use, has created a less diverse forest today. The more open woodland and glade habitats are virtually non-existent. An examination of the list of species of conservation concern reveals many species that are fire-adapted.

One widespread and visible example is the slow shift of dominant trees species away from fire-adapted oaks and pines and towards shade-loving—but fire-averse—maples and poplar. Across the Appalachians, scientists have documented the lack of young oak and pine seedlings—the next generation of forest. 

Tiny raindrops dot a large spider web spun between the branches of a leafed out oak tree.
Oak Forests Young oak trees represent the next generation of Appalachian forests. © Daniel White / TNC

Oak trees have adapted to fire, developing features that allow them to survive and thrive in its presence: thicker bark to withstand heat and seedling taproots to enable sprouting after fire. Even oak leaves get in on the act—they dry out more quickly than the leaves of other species, making the forest floor more responsive to fire. 

Once shade-loving maple seedlings are established, they crowd out oak seedlings and become the next generation of forest when the older trees die. In the oak-dominated portion of the Appalachians, this shift away from valuable oak species will have long-lasting implications for wildlife, plants and humans.

Forests that evolved with fire cannot survive without fire; neither can the birds and animals that live there. When fire is reintroduced, plants sometimes reappear where they have not been seen for decades.

Seven people pose together in a line during a controlled burn. They are wearing yellow fire gear and some hold red drip torch canisters. Fire burns through the tall grass behind them.
Restoration Partnership In 2021 multi-agency burn teams from TNC, VA Dept. of Forestry and VA Dept. of Wildlife Resources conducted controlled burns across 36,000 acres in the Central Appalachians. © Nikole Simmons / TNC

A Fire Restoration Partnership

TNC has worked hard to establish a multi-agency partnership, designed to re-establish fire on a significant portion of public lands in western Virginia. This partnership, the Central Appalachian Fire Learning Network (FLN) is a collaborative effort among federal, state and private land managers to share knowledge and resources.  

Logo of the Central Appalachians Fire Learning Network. The letters F-L-N are prominently featured next to a multicolored leaf graphic.
Fire Learning Network This collaborative effort among federal, state and private land managers promotes the sharing of knowledge and resources. © FLN

Over its ten-year history, partnerships developed through the FLN have been a key component in restoring fire to the landscape at an ecologically meaningful scale. The Central Appalachians FLN covers lands in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. Key accomplishments of FLN include:

  • Conducting regular burns on 130,000 acres of forest
  • Development of robust fire effects monitoring programs, including for avian community, forest structure and composition and burn severity
  • Mapping of ecological zones across 10.2 million acres in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky
  • Facilitation of interagency training opportunities
  • Facilitation of dendrochronology, soil charcoal and other fire history research throughout the region
Group photo of several dozen women taking during a fire training exchange. The women are wearing yellow fire gear and posing in a clearing in a forest.
Women's Fire Learning Exchange Participants gather for a group photo during the Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX), 2016. © TNC

Fire Training Exchanges

Prescribed fire training exchanges (TREX) are another way to increase staff capacity and enhance skills by delivering unique experiential learning opportunities. In March 2014, the Allegheny Highlands program hosted the first eastern U.S. TREX. Participants from a wide range of organizations and states gained valuable experience while assisting Virginia partners with their controlled burns.

Women have traditionally been an underutilized resource in fire management. The Women in Fire TREX (WTREX) program aims to connect women who work in fire, providing mentoring and networking opportunities and increasing diversity and inclusion in the fire management workforce. Virginia’s Nikole Simmons is a leader in the program which began in 2016 and came to Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve in 2022.

Planning and Conducting Burns

In the right place at the right time, fire is a land management tool that can offer numerous benefits to people and wildlife. Controlled burns are carefully planned. They take place only when the weather conditions are best to control smoke, manage fire behavior and ensure the safety of the fire team, nearby residents and private property.

Prior to lighting the burn, crews construct and designate firebreaks to help ensure the fire does not leave the burn area. Firebreaks are corridors around the burn where vegetation has been removed. Roads, trails and streams also make good firebreaks.

Returning Fire to the Landscape

Teams of skilled fire experts use controlled burns to safely reintroduce fire to the forests of the Allegheny Highlands and Central Appalachians.

A man wearing yellow fire gear stands in an open field next to a small fire that is burning itself out. Tall mountain ridges line the horizon in the background under a bright blue sky.
A woman wearing yellow fire gear sits on the ground in a forest. She is smiling and her arms are raised over her head in an expression of celebration.
A small red fire engine sit on a wide path cut along the side of a steep slope. The land on either side is darkened by a fire that has moved across the slope. Trees are still standing and unharmed.
A white helicopter flies over a forest during a controlled burn. White smoke rises from the forest floor. The terrain rises into a ridge top in the background.
A man wearing yellow fire gear stands in a forest. Fire and smoke rise in front of him from a controlled burn. A wide creek flows behind him at the bottom of a steep bank.
Two men wearing fire gear stand on either side of a small fire engine. Behind them two men monitor a fire during a controlled burn. The air is filled with flecks of either snow or ash.
Aerial view looking down into a thick forest. White smoke rises from the thin line of orange fire that is advancing along the ground during a controlled burn.
A man with a bushy brown beard holds a red drip torch canister. Behind him a line of fire burns into a stand of tall shrubs during a controlled burn.
A man wearing goggles and yellow fire gear stands at the edge of a wide dirt track. A fire burns along the other side of the track consuming the green vegetation during a controlled burn.
A woman wearing a red hard hat uses a red drip torch to start a fire line in an open grassy field during a controlled burn.

Fire Technology

Ignition of controlled burns is often done by hand, with crew members using drip torches. For larger burns, and to maximize the safety of ground crews, a helicopter is used for aerial ignition. A PSD (plastic sphere dispenser) activates and spits out chemically treated spheres resembling ping-pong balls. Upon landing, each sphere bursts into a small ball of flame.

In 2021, Virginia's fire team began using a drone for aerial ignition. An immediate benefit was increased safety as the drone was able to replace many inherently risky helicopter flights. It also easily accesses terrain that is treacherous for crews on the ground to reach, and its imaging technology gives the pilot an eagle’s-eye view of the burn operation.

Aerial Ignition (3:54) A TNC drone is used to safely ignite the interior of a controlled burn conducted with the Virginia Dept. of Wildlife Resources at Highland County WMA.

Setting Records for Restoration

Three people pose together in front of a rustic cabin. They are wearing yellow fire-retardant gear and holding long-handled hoes. A white pickup truck is parked behind them.
Big Wilson Burn Burn crew members at the Trapper's Lodge staging area during the 6,000-acre Big Wilson Burn conducted on Warm Springs Mountain in 2012. © Daniel White/TNC

Burning at scale allows us to achieve a range of ecological effects, including improving the condition of fire-adapted forest types, wildlife habitat enhancement and fuel reduction.

Following a long hiatus due to the pandemic, TNC and partners resumed controlled burning in 2021. Good weather, the maturation of our partnerships and everyone’s burning desire—pun intended—to get back to work contributed to setting records for the number of acres burned across the Central Appalachian Mountains.

During spring 2023, TNC fire teams joined with our state and federal agency partners to complete the largest-ever controlled burn across TNC and national forest lands in Virginia. Our partnership—Heart of the Appalachians Fire Learning Network—applied fire to 7,300 acres across the aptly named Big Wilson and Porter’s Mill burn units. The record-setting burn was both a milestone for a years-long investment in forest restoration and a new beginning.

Two women in a forest clearing counting birds as part of a monitoring study. One holds a pair of binoculars in her hands while looking up into the trees. The second woman holds a large clipboard.
Avian Monitoring TNC's Nikole Simmons and Laurel Schablein count birds in a sample plot, part of ongoing monitoring efforts to assess the habitat benefits of controlled burning. © Sandy Hausman / WVTF

After the smoke clears and the fire teams head for home, our forests get to work on regeneration. Within days, new life will appear. The forest’s response, in turn, sets in motion new seasonal cycles of scientific inquiry into the effects of fire and how restoration is progressing toward desired healthy conditions.

What’s best for biodiversity is a forest with a mosaic of habitats and structures, from sunny to shady. Burning allows us to recreate the missing parts of that mosaic. Along with assessing forest patterns via satellite imagery, our Allegheny Highlands staff return periodically to burned areas to inventory songbirds and monitor plant growth.

The plots that resound with the most bird song are often those entangled in blackberry brambles and other thick understory cover important for many species. It can take 10 minutes to travel 20 yards through some of the habitat.

Some of these adventures require chainsaw chaps for protection against the vegetation, while others offer a peaceful stroll through open forest. Gaps in the canopy encouraged by fire allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor and new grasses and flowering plants to grow. 

Bird Monitoring in the Allegheny Highlands

Understanding how fire affects plant and animal communities is an important part of our conservation efforts. In 2011 the Alleghany Highlands Program began a long-term study of the response of bird communities to landscape-scale burning over time.

A small black and white songbird perches on a thin branch growing from the side of a large tree.
Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia) occupies a broad niche, and is found in a variety of habitats. © Angie Cole

The monitoring area spans 18,000 acres of contiguous lands owned by TNC and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests and samples from a set of 107 permanent plots established for pre- and post-burn forest structure and composition monitoring.

Although each bird recorded in this survey is significant, seven focal species are of interest: Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood-pewee, Black-and-white Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Ovenbird and Eastern Towhee.

Listening and Learning

Surveys are conducted from mid- May through mid-June—the peak breeding season. Birds are recorded in one-minute intervals for ten minutes at each survey point.

A small green and yellow bird perches on a tree branch partly obscured by thick green leaves.
A white bird with a brown head and brown striped breast perches on a tree branch.
A small bird with a black head, white breast, and red shoulders perches on a tree branch.
A man stands in a forest holding a clipboard and recording notes about the bird species observed in the area. Light dapples the forest floor as it filters through the thick trees.
A bright red bird with black wings perches on a thin branch.

These birds were chosen for their abundance, high detection probabilities, foraging niches and nesting habitat preferences. Estimated population trends for these species may indicate changes in habitat condition and help inform our land management decisions.

Preliminary results from this ongoing study suggest that, although focal species may have positive or negative responses to a single controlled burn, they remain resilient both in geographic space and over time as the overall bird diversity in the project area increases.

A small gray and brown bird with a yellow cap sits in a tree branch.
Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) the Allegheny Highlands are a stronghold for this increasingly rare songbird species. © Matt Williams
× A small gray and brown bird with a yellow cap sits in a tree branch.
A black bear cub pauses in the middle of a thick stand of tall ferns.
American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) can be found throughout Virginia, with the highest concentration of bears occuring in the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains. © Kent Mason
× A black bear cub pauses in the middle of a thick stand of tall ferns.
Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) the Allegheny Highlands are a stronghold for this increasingly rare songbird species. © Matt Williams
American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) can be found throughout Virginia, with the highest concentration of bears occuring in the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains. © Kent Mason

Animals and Fire

Animals may be temporarily displaced following a prescribed burn, but most can avoid direct harm from fire. Deer run; birds and bats fly; and mice, lizards, snakes and salamanders go underground into burrows or under rocks as a fire approaches.

Ironically, the absence of fire may cause greater harm to wildlife. Habitat changes resulting from fire exclusion can result in low reproduction and eventual displacement of some wildlife. Today many wildlife species are imperiled by habitat changes resulting from too little burning.

Acorns, blueberries and blackberries are important food sources for white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, black bears, songbirds and many other wildlife species. Fire increases fruit production in some plants and helps improve seed germination for others.

An owl sits on a branch high up in a tree almost obscured by green leaves.
Barred Owl (Strix varia), Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, Virginia. © Daniel White/TNC

The diversity of young and old trees, and open and closed canopy conditions created by fire, provides a greater array of habitats for different species. Songbirds, for example, partition forest resources by dividing up the height at which they nest and find food: from scarlet tanagers nesting and foraging in the canopy to ovenbirds making their living on the ground.

Standing dead trees, or snags, created by fire are invaluable to woodpeckers, barred owls and other cavity nesting birds and used as den trees by black bears, bobcats and raccoons.

Overall, fire creates a complex mosaic of different habitats and food resources leading to a more biologically rich and diverse natural area.